I just got out of jail and I can’t wait to go back. It wasn’t the three square meals or the chance to play chess in the yard — the cafeteria wasn’t even functioning and the wind was so great that it would have moved my pieces faster than castling could. As it turned out, the enjoyably chilling experience of visiting the West Virginia State Penitentiary, even in 37 degree weather, was better than a twilight tour of Alcatraz, making it a must-do for Steel City denizens seeking summer day trips.
“We get a lot of people coming down from Pittsburgh,” said Pam Ryan, of Moundsville, W.Va., home of the long-since retired penitentiary, now a tourist destination.
For the past 15 years, Ryan has worked at the residentially located prison, which is minimally set off from an aggregate of homes by a slim street.
“About 15,000 people” show up annually for daily tours, escape rooms, scheduled sleepovers or ghost adventures, she said. “Weekdays aren’t as busy.”
Located less than 90 minutes from Pittsburgh, the stone walled structure, which was inspired by a similarly gothic facility in Joliet, Ill., was built in 1866 and remained operational until 1995.
Unlike at Alcatraz, where visitors linger in line to board a boat and then get a recorded presentation via headphones, at the West Virginia State Penitentiary after parking your car outside of someone’s house, you cross a narrow avenue, enter the calaboose and moments later meet your guide, which is a human who is more than willing to answer questions posed.
As we made our way through visitation centers, shower spaces and cells marked with graffiti, Ryan fielded inquiries such as, “Does that electric chair still work?” “What happened to the inmates who organized the 1986 prison riot?” and “If the warden’s family lived on site, where did his children play?”
We had about 20 people in our party, about a third of whom were under the age of 12. The information was engaging and accessible, but more enthralling was ambling the area and appreciating the conditions. On the walls, and in all corners of the space, there are paintings, sculptures and other inmate-rendered art.
These productions, along with the tales of fights, friendships and fear forged by daily encounters between inmates, perfectly position the museum as a menagerie of life and death. That it teeters between the two is a turbulent reminder of humanity’s gifts and guilt.
“I remember walking on one of the streets and the prisoners yelling out at you,” she said. “I never thought they could see you, but somehow they could.”
Our tour guide similarly said that locals used to call over and alert officers whenever white sheets draped the exterior walls in a rope-like fashion.
Despite possessing fewer than 10,000 residents, Moundsville has a heap of stories, but perhaps none that date back further than a site situated 26 feet across the road.
Grave Creek Mound, a National Historic Landmark, is one of the largest conical burial mounds in the United States. With a height of 69 feet and a base diameter of 295 feet, the grassed domain, which was originally encircled by a 40-foot wide and 5-foot deep moat, was erected by members of the Adena people roughly 2,000 years ago.
Adjacent to the mound is the Delf Norona Museum, which houses artifacts illuminating Adena culture. As explained by the museum, it is unknown why the Adena built such a large structure.
Those seeking a slightly alternative religious or aesthetic experience can head east 11 miles to New Vrindaban, home to an International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) community, as well as “The Palace of Gold.”
Built by unskilled laborers who learned on the job, the magnificent building boasts a multitude of marble, onyx, gold inlay and even peacock feathers all integrated into an exquisitely designed residence originally intended for A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of ISKCON.
As a guide explained, Prabhupada’s death interrupted construction and redirected the project’s focus toward erecting a memorial shrine. A tour of the facility, which lasts less than 30 minutes, affords access to a glorious space as well as several possessions previously belonging to Prabhupada.
While exiting the palace bestows monumental views, so too does the return trip. Although I headed north on I-79, and arrived in Pittsburgh roughly an hour and 40 minutes later, Google Maps suggests an alternative trek “via OH-7 N/Ohio River Scenic Byway and US-22 E.”
For daytrippers choosing either path, recommended pre-reading is “Trees of West Virginia Farms and Woodlots,” a digital publication available at agriculture.wv.gov. With the text in mind and the sights outdoors, drivers may discover that there is no better escape from a dialogue on prison breaks, burial grounds and stained glass, than recognizing the difference between a pawpaw and a sassafras.
Getting There: Head southwest on I-79 from Pittsburgh. Washington, Pa., is a welcome stop for those seeking outlet shopping.
Costs: Free parking and reduced entrance rates throughout make Moundsville a relative bargain. Admission to the West Virginia State Penitentiary is $14 for adults, $11 for seniors, $8 for kids 6-16 and free for children 5 and under. Admission to Grave Creek Mound and the Delf Norona Museum are free. Admission to the Palace of Gold is $9.50 for adults and $7.50 for children under 12.
Additional Bonus not to be Skipped on a Summer Day: Moundsville is home to Grand Vue Park, a massive recreation area complete with ziplining, swimming, disc golf, miniature golf, a Par-3 golf course, picnic shelters and playgrounds. Access to the park is free. Additional costs apply to activities. PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.